Eight sites to visit in a day in the historic centre of Rome. A walking itinerary.
A tourist walking route around the historic center of Rome with many “goodies” and places unknown even to the Romans, like the works of Caravaggio in the Church San Luigi dei Francesi
The historic centre of Rome can be very generous. In fact, although the city extends over a very large area, it still has a very high density of beauty. Works of art, museums, churches and monuments succeed each other sometimes at a distance of just a few meters.
We have tried to pu together some of the many beauties of Rome in a single walk.
The route starts from our coffee restaurant, the Santa Maria, located near the Termini railway station in via Gioberti 28. After leaving Termini walk past our restaurant and continue on Via Gioberti. The road will take you to one of the most important and beautiful squares of Rome: Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore.
The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four papal basilicas of the city, stands out majestically on your right as you come from Via Gioberti.
Colle Oppio and the strange view of the Colosseum
Coast the square and turn left on Via Merulana, the street that connects Santa Maria Maggiore to the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.
Turn right as you arrive on Largo Brancaccio, and then left on Via del Monte Oppio. You will arrive at the entrance to the park Colle Oppio, 11 hectares of vegetation punctuated by ruins in the heart of Rome. It is here that Nero had his famous Domus Aurea, which is now being restored and can be visited only on special occasions.
We suggest, hoewever, not to take this entrance but to turn left on Via delle Terme di Traiano and go to the next entrance. As you follow the road you will find yourself in the beautiful Martin Lutero square, an enchanted and out of time place, perfectly suited for your first break.
Continuing on Via della Domus Aurea you will glimpse the city’s most symbolic monument: the Coliseum. At the bottom of the street the view opens on to one of the most particular spots of Amphitheatro Flaviano. Look at it carefully. Do you see anyhting particular?
The last two arches are filled with bricks and their progression is interrupted by a huge brick buttress. It is the famous restoration completed by architect Raffaele Stern in 1807, following the earthquake of the year before. It was an emergency project and yet of great value for the history of restoration. Cheap, compared to other proposed projects, today it appears absorbed into the architecture of the monument.
As you walk along, going uphill and then turning right on Via del Fragutale, you will notice a small and peculiar bridge. It is actually a walkway over Via Annibaldi from which you can enjoy a second amazing view of the Coliseum, certainly a place where to take a beautiful photo.
Michelangelo's Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains)
We suggest you continue on the small Via del Fragutale to Piazza San Francesco di Paola, where you, going right, you will walk up a flight of stairs and, after passing under an arch, you’ll find yourself in a very surprising place: Piazza San Pietro in Vincoli. Here stands the famous Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains, also Basilica Eudossiana).
The basilica, divided into three naves separated by marble Doric columns, houses art work of great artistic relevance, such as, for example, St. Augustine and the altarpiece of Saint Margaret of Antioch by Guercino and the Liberation of St. Peter by Domenichino.
The church is famous, however, famous worldwide because it houses the tomb of Julius II and Michelangelo’s Moses, one of the most important art works in the history of Western sculpture.
The figure of Moses was carved starting from 1513 together with the two splendid statues known as the Dying Slave and the Rebel Slave (today at the Louvre). As the statue of David, but with more complex and mature forms, the statue appears in balance between action and stillness. The sitting body appears almost relaxed while the leg and arm muscles are delineated and tense as under strain and the torsion of the neck prospects an impossible movement to follow.
The Monti distric and the Augustus Forum
It is indeed worthwhile wandering a bit around Rome’s first district, Rione Monti. This historic distric of the city has undergone, over the centuries, numerous geographical reorganizations. The area you are penetrating is the famous Suburra, a popular neighbourhood close to the forums, known at the time for its low-level inns and brothels. Today the completely redeveloped neighbourhood is one of the most popular of the city.
Following Via dei Serpenti you will find yourself in the heart of the district, the piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a meeting place for many young Romans, especially on summer weekends.
The most famous streets of the district are Via Panisperna, known for its “up and down” course and also famous for being the home of the “ragazzi di Via Panisperna“, Via del Boschetto and Via Urbana, but the unique views of this little district are really very many.
Another well known and beautiful street in the district is Via Baccina, which starts from the little Piazza Monti. At the end of Via Baccina you will find an arch that opens inside a tall wall. You are right in front of the wall that used to separate the forums from the Suburra.
What you see through the arch on Via Baccina is the Forum of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
In 42 BC, before the decisive battle of Philippi against the Julius Caesar’s assassins, Octavian made a vow, promising to build a temple to Mars Ultor (the Avenger) in case of victory. Thus the need to carve out a space for a third forum (after the Roman forum and that of Caesar) in the crowded centre of Rome.
Apart from the solemn vow, the forum actually responded to many needs of the population; it housed mostly court activities relative to due to the increased number of processes in the city, but it was also the place where the senate deliberated of war and of peace. The sons of the best families were enrolled in the military in the temple of Mars and the victorious generals laid here their insignia. It was all in all a political, military and administrative ‘multipurpose center’. Ultimately, it was also a wonderful sculptural gallery of mythical and historical characters, from Aeneas to the Gens Iulia.
But soon you will enjoy it even more. Turn right and then immediately left into a short street leading to a slope – at first it might seem a dead end – from which you access a small marvellous walkway to Trajan’s Forum.
After the ealkway you will find yourself on Via dei Fori Imperiali. A venue to see!
The walk has already been quite a long one and very rich. If you feel tired you can skip some stages of our itinerary to go directly to the “Caravaggio area.” In this case, you can turn right onto Piazza Venezia and take the bus number 64 to the bus stop Corso Vittorio / Sant’Andrea della Valle, close to Corso Rinascimento.
For those who wish to continue, we suggest three absolutely beautiful stops.
The Mamertine prison and the Clivus Argentarius at the Roman forum
The Roman forum is of course one of those unique places in the world that deserve to be fully explored. The history of the forums helps to really understand much of the essence of classical Rome and its evolution.
Given the high flow of tourists in the area, unless you want to visit all the forums, we recommend one of the more interesting and less beaten places. Along Via dei Fori Imperiali to the right, at a certain point, you will see an uphill road on the left, take it and turn immediately left on the Clivus Argentarius, a stretch of road of the Republican age and discovered during the investigations carried of 2006. The road ran through the slopes of the Capitoline hill and was equipped with a sewer in tuff slabs to collect rainwater between the II-I century B.C. The 2006 discovery was significant also because it allowed a better understanding of the dense urban reorganization created by Caesar in order to build his own forum (to your left, if you are walking the Clivus Argentarius).
Further ahead you will arrive at the Mamertine prison, an ancient Roman prison. Many famous people had been ‘guests’ of the prison, such as Jucurtha, Vercingetorix and the saints Peter and Paul. In an ‘absurd’ and very particular combination the Church of St. Joseph the carpenter was built on top of the prison.
The small ‘square’ where you are now, Via del Tulliano, is, in the autther’s opinion, one of the magical places of the city.
The view over the Roman Forum is definitely worth a few seconds of contemplation and, among other things, you will also be able to observe from a privileged perspective the great arch of Settimio Severo. To the right of the arch are well visible the columns of the Temple of Saturn, one of the oldest places of worship in Rome, and the columns of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus. Behind you is the Church of saints Luke and Martin, with the tomb and the crypt of Pietro da Cortona.
On the right there are some stairs going up, indeed somewhat tiring. You can either take these stairs or, else, the way uphill along Via di San Pietro in Carcere to reach the next destination of the route.
Piazza del Campidoglio and the Tarpeian Rock
At the end of via San Pietro in Carcere (St. Peter in Chainsthere is the magnificent square Piazza del Campidoglio. Radically redesigned by Michelangelo in 1534-1538, after a very slow progress (Michelangelo, who died in 1564, could not follow the whole construction), consistent with Michelangelo’s project, the piazza became the jewel that today we admire. The square is home to one of the city’s main museums, the Capitoline Museums.
You can, if you would like to quickly reach the Capitoline Cordonata (the special ‘staircase’ created by Michelangelo) leading to Piazza d’Aracoeli, turn left and then immediately right onto Via Montanara. Along this street you cannot help but notice the Teatro Marcello, which may recall a small Coliseum.
If you prefer, you may, instead, take Via del Campidoglio and continue walking round the Capitoline Museums; a scenic and relaxing stroll that will allow you to observe the forums from another perspective.
Following this road you will find yourself near the Tarpeian Rock, the cliff that slopes from the south side of the Capitol to today’s Via del Teatro Marcello. More than for its view, better visible from the other side, from the bottom, for example from Piazza della Conciliazione, the Tarpeian Rock is significant for the history it preserves.
According to tradition, traitors condemned to death were thrown down from this cliff. The cliff takes the name from Tarpea, daughter of Spurious Tarpeo, custodian of the capitoline fortress. Apparently, Tarpea was guilty of treason since she pointed out to the Sabines the hidden path to reach the Capitoline hill. The historian Tito Livio tells us that it was the sabine king Tito Tazio who corrupted the girl. However, once inside, the Sabines still killed Tarpea, perhaps as punishment for the betrayal, burying her in the cliff that now carries her name.
Often ancient Rome’s history mixes with legend. Mythical episodes – as is also true for real history – are seldom not very bloody.
The Jewish Quarter and Borromini’s prospect
Continuing along Via Montanara you will find yourself in yet another of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city, the Jewish Quarter. It is the ‘Ghetto of Rome’, one of the oldest in the world.
Continuing straight ahead you will arrive in the small Piazza Mattei, at whose centre lies one of the many beautiful fountains in the city, the Turtle Fountain, created by the sculptor Taddeo Landini in 1588, probably upon design of Giacomo della Porta.
The district naturally deserves many detours (for example, it is home to the Great Synagogue of Rome, the most important synagogue of the city), but to reach the next venue just go straight, pass Via Arenula and continue on Via dei Giubbonari.
Turning left onto Via Arco del Monte and then onto the first street right, Via Capo di Ferro, you will reach Palazzo Spada.
Inside Palazzo Spada you will find one of the most amazing artifices of the Baroque: the prospect of Borromini.
It is a lined gallery with columns, at the end of which, in the distance, you will see a marble statue. Apparently the tunnel seems long 30 to 40 meters. Yet this is not the case! You’ll know once a guide will walk the gallery. Its actual length is just over 8 meters and the statue you see in the distance is not so far away, it is just ‘small’.
Your eyes have fallen victim to an amazing perspective effect created by the baroque genius of Borromini.
The four masterpieces by Caravaggio in the centre of Rome
Continue along Corso Rinascimento and take the first street to the right right, Via del Salvatore. On the left you will see a medium-sized church, San Luigi dei Francesi. Inside, in the last chapel of the left aisle (Contarelli Chapel), you will find three paintings by Caravaggio. They are the famous Stories of St. Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew (left), Saint Matthew and the Angel (center) and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (right).
This one is a fundamental cycle for a better understanding of Caravaggio because it is in fact the artist’s first major contract.
The work, commisioned in 1599, is fully inserted in the theological debate on the relationship between grace and free will (one of the confrontational grounds between Catholics and Protestants) which is for Caravaggio a reason for deep reflection on the relationship between man and the divine.
The Vocation depicts the scene of the Saint Matthew’s calling, consistent with the story of the Synoptic Gospels (the Gospel of Luke, Mark and of the same Matthew). It is the brilliant hand play that relates the relationship between the man Matthew and the incarnated divinity, Christ. It is difficult to not recognize in the hand of Christ, the hand of Adam from Michelangelo’s celebrated image in the Sistine Chapel. The hand of the first man in Michelangelo becomes that of Christ with Caravaggio.
The work in the middle, Saint Matthew and the Angel, is a second draft. The angel is a recurring attribute of the saint according to a historically consolidated iconography.
The first version, which was rejected, was destroyed in World War II, but a few clear drawings still remain and they show a physical vicinity between Saint Matthew and the Angel, which does not appear in the version you can admire today. There are several possible reasons for the rejection of the work – probably ‘incorrect’ from a strictly theological point of view – but the more traditional one indicates in the erotic proximity between Matthew and the Angel the true cause of the rejection.
You may notice how the hand intended as “writing” realizes the relationship with the divine.
The Martyrdom, a complex work of an almost ‘cinematic’ composition, depicts the assassin of King Hyrtacus who, drawing his sword, blocks Saint Matthew’s hand, preventing him from reaching the palm of martyrdom that the angel holds from above.
It is a significant and a curiosity that Caravaggio portrays himself in the little group on the left, attending the scene.
Leaving San Luigi turn left and then left again at the second intersection (Via Sant’Agostino). Surprises for Caravaggio lovers are in fact not yet over. Inside the Basilica di Sant’Agostino you will find one of the best known paintings of the great artist: the Madonna of the Pilgrims. Dating from around 1604-1605, the painting depicts two pilgrims kneeling facing the Madonna carrying baby Jesus.
The bare feet of the portrayed characters have always aroused surprise, particularly the dirty feet of the pilgrims. This choice had given rise to a lot of criticism in the past, but today it is one of the most emblematic images of Caravaggio’s attachment to a concrete and realistic humanity.
The painting was commissioned by the Cavalletti family as altarpiece of the funeral chapel of the marquis Ermete Cavalletti. The two pilgrims depict precisely the marquis and his mother.
The clothing of both the Madonna and of the pilgrims is also fully consistent with the tradition of the Madonna of Loreto, name by which sources have always indicated the work. According to the Catholic tradition, it is Loreto in fact that preserves Mary’s house in Nazareth, transported after the Muslim invasion, first to Dalmatia, then to Rijeka, then to Recanati and finally – in 1295 – to Loreto.
Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa by Bernini
At this point we imagine that even the most daring will be very tired after such a long walk. You can go back to Corso Rinascimento and take bus 492 (the stop is in front of Sant’Ivo) leading to Largo Susanna, a few meters from the entrance of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
However, true athletes can also walk to the last stop by taking first Via delle Coppelle, then Via del Tritone and finally Via Barberini. This will be about two kilometres walk in the city centre. Places worthy of reporting in the area are of course many, we will just cite the Pantheon and the two fountains by Bernini (the Triton Fountain and the Fountain of the Bees) at Piazza Barberini.
The main attraction of the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Vittoria is of course the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa d’Avila by Bernini, in the Cornaro Chapel. This spectacular work dates 1646-1652.
The sculpture depicts an angel with a golden arrow, symbol of divine love, piercing through the heart of Santa Teresa in ecstasy. The drapery of the saint, modelled masterfully, creates a play of shadows that gradually clear in the marble busts of the main figures creating a wonderful ‘suspension’, further accentuated by the invisible light source placed above. Bernini here achieves a creative blend of sculpture, architecture and pictorial design, difficult to match.
A highly scenic and amazing work with which we like to end our walk in the centre of Rome.
Walking along Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, past Piazza della Repubblica, you will get back to Termini.
Our coffee restaurant, the Santa Maria in Via Gioberti, is ready to welcome you after this long sightseeing tour of Rome. Our menu, which can be viewed online, offers many of the typical dishes of Roman cuisine.
Hoping that our itinerary will have satisfied you, we can only wish you “buon appetito”!